Please forgive Washington County softball pitchers if they feel as if the deck has been stacked against them this season.
For starters, the National Federation of High Schools made a rule change to move the circle back three feet, increasing the distance from the rubber to home plate to 43 feet. That’s only going to give more reaction time to a group of talented hitters at the top and middle of their team’s lineups.
Six players return who hit better than .400 last season — North Hagerstown’s Shanan Plunkett and Allysen Breeden, Smithsburg’s Shayla Murray and Brooke Parks, Clear Spring’s Heather Schlotterbeck and Hancock’s Tiffany Younker.
Five players return who hit at least three homers — Plunkett, Schlotterbeck, Boonsboro’s Haley Payne, Smithsburg’s Cara Ferguson and Williamsport’s Kayla Ewing.
The battle for the MVAL Antietam title appears to be wide open, with Clear Spring, North Hagerstown and Smithsburg all looking like legit contenders.
“Our in-county competition, it’s always good to be able to have competitive games and there will be a lot of games that can be won by either team, which makes it exciting,” Hubs coach Amanda Fleming said.
First-year coach Traci Humphreys will be counting on senior Haley Payne for both pitching and offense. She hit .333 with three doubles and three homers last year, and struck out 30 in 22 2/3 innings, though she walked 22.
“Haley’s got a lot of junk and a lot of speed,” Humphreys said. “Her bat is incredible. Those are the things we’ll be relying on from her.”
Senior Amber Welch hit .292 with seven doubles last year and will see time in the circle. Junior Kayla Payne can play anywhere on defense and hit .298 a year ago.
“Amber has an amazing bat, she just goes hot and cold, so we’re hoping she stays hot,” Humphreys said. “Same with Kayla.”
Humphreys is hoping senior outfielder Allison Holmes and junior first baseman Amber Myers can add depth to the lineup. Other starting positions are still being contested.
“I’ve got a couple sophomores and juniors doing a lot of drills and trying to see where everybody fits in,” Humphreys said. “It’s going to be a rebuilding season for us, we lost a lot of people.”
Coach Ron Baker guided the Blazers further in the playoffs than any other county team, reaching the Class 1A West final and finishing 17-5.
But Clear Spring has already suffered a huge loss. Junior pitcher Morgan Purdham, an All-County Second Team honoree last season, tore her ACL playing basketball and is out for the season.
“That’s definitely harmful,” Baker said. “We just won’t be as comfortable going into certain games.”
The Blazers still have arguably the best returning pitcher in the county in junior Amber Forrest, who went 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings last year. She also hit .328.
“She’s going to be the main pitcher, and she’s going to have to throw as well as she can,” Baker said. “Our success will come down largely on her pitching. My concern is how well we’re going to hit.”
Baker can breathe easier with Schlotterbeck at the top of the lineup. The junior shortstop hit .500 with eight doubles and three homers last season and is a preseason hitter of the year candidate.
Three other Blazers hits better than .300 last year — junior second baseman Haley Thorn, sophomore Sarah Blickenstaff and sophomore Jenna Knable. Blickenstaff and Knable will each play at catcher and third base.
Sophomores Victoria Albert, Courtney Royce and Sara Elwood and freshman Brooklyn Drury will have opportunities to make an impact. Drury will see time in the circle.
“Some of the newcomers are looking good,” Baker said. “I know Knable, Haley and Amber will be there. Brooklyn throws reasonably well, she just needs to play and get in game situations and grow from it.”
First-year coach Todd Ruppenthal’s team will be anchored by Younker, a junior who hit .433 with nine extra-base hits last year.
Sophomore Emily Harvey hit .368 last year, while junior second baseman Tatum True also returns.
“Tiffany, Tatum and Emily are going to be the key for us offensively,” Ruppenthal said. “Those three need to get on base. Everything’s going to center on them.”
Younker and Harvey will see the bulk of the pitching action. The emphasis will be on cutting down the walks — they combined to offer 114 free passes in 104 innings last year.
“I think that’s where they’ve improved a lot from last year,” Ruppenthal said. “They have better control and they’ve been playing travel softball.”
Senior first baseman Maureen Leavy has power potential, while several sophomores — including Sara Wagner, Jessica Martin, Sierra Fowler and Lexi Foreman — will get opportunities.
“I’m real happy with the infield,” Ruppenthal said. “Our question marks are in the outfield. If we can make the routine plays in the field, we should be OK.”
Hubs coach Amanda Fleming gets to pencil in arguably the strongest middle of the order in the county — starting with Plunkett, the 2010 Herald-Mail Washington County Hitter of the Year. She hit .421 with five doubles, three triples, three homers as a junior a year ago.
“Shanan just needs to make contact with the ball and not try to kill it,” Fleming said. “We want her to get on base more and score some runs.”
Breeden is back for her senior year after the catcher hit .429 with six doubles and two homers last year.
“Shanan and Allysen back-to-back, can’t go wrong there,” Fleming said.
Look out for sophomore third baseman Danielle Wissinger, a leadoff lefty with speed and power whose numbers — she hit .294 with five doubles a year ago — should improve. Senior first baseman Faith Ricker and second baseman Mandy Fiery are back, as is senior outfielder Ali Forrest.
“The whole way through our lineup, we have players who can get on base in any way,” Fleming said. “Our lineup’s going to be pretty good with regard to getting people on base and scoring runs.”
The Hubs also boast two good pitchers in junior Rebecca Amalfitano (6-3, 2.61 ERA) and sophomore Rachel Thomas (6-3, 2.38 ERA). What they lack in power, they make up for with control.
“I just expect them to throw strikes and let the defense do the work,” Fleming said. “We’re going to have a solid defense. They’re pretty good at getting the ball near the plate. They just have to do their job and not try to do anything spectacular.”
Leopards coach Katy Barnhart, whose team went 14-5 and finished second behind Catoctin in the MVAL Antietam last year, may argue that her team has the strongest middle of the order — and she could be right.
Murray, a junior shortstop, hit .463 with 10 doubles and two homers from her leadoff spot last year. As freshmen last season, Parks led the county with her .510 average and had nine extra-base hits, while Ferguson hit .300 with four homers.
“I think we have the potential to score a lot of runs,” Barnhart said. “We have some speed with Shayla, she’s so fast and an excellent leadoff hitter, and Brooke has a lot of power. We’re kind of young, but we also have a lot of experience. They’re excited about how they did last year and are ready to pick up where they left off and continue to grow as a team.”
Senior third baseman Danielle Hudson (.310), junior second baseman Karah Knight (.294) and sophomore catcher Kinsey Shifflett (.310, two homers) return, as do senior first baseman Danielle Beaver and senior outfielder Jessica Hartman.
Ferguson and Murray will handle most of the pitching duties. Ferguson came on strong late last season and finished 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA, while Murray went 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA.
“Cara’s been working hard in the offseason and has developed a couple new pitches,” Barnhart said. “She’s going to keep getting better. She has a lot of control. Shayla can come in and pitch and be solid, and (sophomore newcomer) Sam (Gladhill) can give us some valuable time as well.”
Rebels coach Angela Jeffries can count on senior shortstop Taylor Leather (.352) and sophomore catcher Darian Kamara (.353) to anchor the lineup. Senior outfielders Courtney Showe and Katie Forsythe will try to give them protection.
“Courtney and Katie have been swinging the bat well in practice and I hope they step up as seniors,” Jeffries said. “Hopefully they’ll contribute and become big-time leaders. Darian is just very athletic. She doesn’t necessarily do it the right way, but her hand-eye coordination is incredible and she’s aggressive at the plate.”
Pitching was South’s biggest problem a year ago, as the Rebels gave up 230 runs in 20 games. Two newcomers — junior Kaitlyn Spangler and sophomore Shayna Bickford — will get their chance in the circle.
“They’re young. I think they will throw strikes,” Jeffries said. “They might start off slow, but I’m looking for where they’ll be at the end of the season.”
Senior Kaitlyn Mades will start at first base, senior Melanie Keller will start at second and sophomore Dejaih Johnson gets the nod at third.
St. Maria Goretti
First-year Gaels coach Steve Howard’s biggest challenge will be trying to find a pitcher to fill the place of the graduated Caroline Rosenthal. Senior Colleen McCauley will get most starts, with freshman Annie Case available.
“Colleen has been working very hard at pitching, has outstanding control and calls a great game,” said Howard.
McCauley, who hit .300 as a catcher last season, also will help anchor the lineup with senior first baseman Colleen Costello, who hit .349 with seven extra-base hits last year.
“These two have worked extremely hard and are outstanding leaders,” Howard said. “They’ve taken that leadership role helping the other players learn the game and are showing that leadership on and off the field.”
Senior Megan Brooks will start at second base and junior Ellie Burke will start at third. Junior Annemarie Koogle, sophomore Erin Senpowski and newcomer Cecelia Trybus earned outfield spots.
The Wildcats’ biggest hole is in the circle after 2010 Herald-Mail Washington County Pitcher of the Year Alexis Fisher graduated. First-year coach Jennie Finafrock will turn to junior Ariah Giles — who went 5-2 with a 3.98 ERA last year — to fill it.
“She’ll have big shoes to fill, but I’m really impressed with her leadership and how she’s done thus far,” Finafrock said. “I have confidence that if we need her to pitch every game, she can do it.”
Senior catcher/shortstop Kayla Ewing hit .344 with three doubles and four homers last year and provides the pop in the middle of the lineup.
“I’m hoping she steps up and has a great senior year,” Finafrock said. “I know she’s excited for this season. She will be very crucial to our success offensively.”
Sophomore outfielder Miranda Valentine hit .389 in limited action last year. Giles, sophomore first baseman Casie Files, sophomore second baseman Lisa Artz, senior third baseman Candance Horchner and sophomore shortstop Autumn Wahler round out the lineup. Artz could see time in the circle.
“We are very young, I think we have five juniors and seniors total, and everyone else is a freshman or sophomore,” Finafrock said. “It’s good for the future, but at the same time we have to do a lot of teaching. Even though they’re young, some of these kids have played a lot of travel ball and I think they’ll step up and be OK.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Allysen Breeden, North Hagerstown — Senior catcher was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .429 with six doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs a year ago.
Colleen Costello, St. Maria Goretti — Senior first baseman was an All-County Second Team honoree after hitting .349 with four doubles and three triples last year.
Kayla Ewing, Williamsport — Senior catcher/shortstop was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .344 with three doubles, four homers and 19 RBIs a year ago.
Cara Ferguson, Smithsburg — Sophomore outfielder was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .300 with four homers and 18 RBIs and going 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA in the circle last year.
Amber Forrest, Clear Spring — Junior pitcher was an All-County First Team honoree after going 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA and striking out 48 in 33 2/3 innings a year ago.
Shayla Murray, Smithsburg — Junior shortstop was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .463 with 10 doubles, two homers and 14 RBIs last year. Also went 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA in the circle.
Brooke Parks, Smithsburg — Sophomore outfielder was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .510 with six doubles, two triples, a homer and 23 RBIs last year.
Shanan Plunkett, North Hagerstown — Senior shortstop was The Herald-Mail’s 2010 Washington County Hitter of the Year after hitting .421 with five doubles, three triples, three homers, 21 RBIs and 16 walks.
Heather Schlotterbeck, Clear Spring — Junior shortstop was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .500 with eight doubles, two triples, three homers and 22 RBIs last year.
Tiffany Younker, Hancock — Junior pitcher/outfielder was an All-County First Team honoree after hitting .433 with six doubles, three triples and 14 RBIs a year ago.